Taking Notes

A Field Sparrow photographed from a distance through thick fog. Good field notes would be more useful.

If you use eBird, and I hope you do, you will notice that when you report a bird that is unusual for your area, eBird requires you to make a comment. The purpose of this is to provide some documentation to support your sighting, making it more valuable for scientific purposes.

Unfortunately, many comments do not accomplish this. I recently saw a report for a bird that would be extremely rare for my area. The comment read, “singing in my tree.” Similar types of comment include “at the feeder” or “I had just spent 30 minutes in the bathroom so I stepped outside for some fresh air and saw this bird.” None of these really provide any useful information.

If you are going to document a bird, whether for eBird or for a bird records committee, make sure your comments actually describe the bird you saw. Things to include in your description include:

  • the size and shape of the bird in direct comparison to nearby species.
  • the size and shape of the bill
  • distinguishing marks or patterns
  • any vocalizations that you heard
  • behaviors
  • the habitat being used

With the advancement of digital photography in the past decade, it seems that everyone is a photographer now. If you can get a good photo of the bird in question, by all means, do so. But birds do not always pose for photos, and the lighting is often bad. So don’t underestimate the value of a crude sketch and some field notes. Even the most basic drawing, surrounded by brief written descriptions, can provide enough support for a solid rare bird report. 

A detailed article on taking field notes, based on my article in Birding, is available on my Patreon.

 

Winter Waterfowl

While birding for some species can be hit-or-miss this time of year, winter in the Willamette Valley always provides great numbers and diversity of waterfowl. Here are just a few I have seen recently.

Canvasback at Force Lake. This little pond always hosts a few of this distinctive species.
Ruddy Duck is another diving duck often found at Force Lake.
This Common Goldeneye was in the creek at Westmoreland Park. Westmoreland used to be the place to see gulls in Portland. But since the duck pond was replaced with a more natural creek channel and wetland, gulls don’t hang out there anymore. The creek is always good for a few ducks, though.
Ring-necked Duck at Westmoreland Park
Hooded Merganser at Amberglen Park
Ridgeway’s Cackling Geese grazing with some American Wigeons at Amberglen
One of two Eurasian Wigeons at Amberglen
It has been a good winter for Eurasian Wigeon in the Portland area. This bird, grazing at Commonwealth Lake, appears to be a young male just starting to molt into breeding plumage. The head color is a little too intense for a female, and there is a hint of blond coming in on the forehead.
American Wigeon at Commonwealth

Happy Winter

Farewell to Autumn

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As winter finally locks in, here is a last look at some autumn colors, starting with this Golden-crowned Sparrow.

Pied-billed Grebe
Northern Shoveler, providing a splash of white, green, and copper
Northern Shovelers often swim with their faces in the water. I know they are filter-feeding along the surface, but it is easy to imagine that those enormous bills are just too heavy to hold up.
Sandhill Cranes flying over Sauvie Island
American Wigeon reflected in a sheltered backwater pool
Eurasian Wigeon feeding in the lawn at Commonwealth Lake. Note the lack of a black outline around the base of the bill, which would be present on an American Wigeon.
Killdeer, contemplating whether to head farther south before the weather turns really bad. We have had a hard freeze since this photo was taken. I wonder what they decided.
Taverner’s Cackling Goose. I like the little white eyebrow on this individual.
This Red-winged Blackbird has some fresh rusty edges to his back feathers. Those will wear off with time.

As we approach two to three months of dark and dreary weather, remind yourself to get outdoors anyway.

Happy Winter

Coastal Birds

My annual gull class visited the Coast from Cannon Beach to Gearhart. Stormy weather caused us to postpone the trip by a week. The weather was lovely the day of our trip, but nice weather, combined with the week’s delay, kept our gull total to a modest seven species.

California Gulls are among the most common species on the coast right now.

California Gull in flight, showing the extensive black in the primaries

Herring Gull

Herring Gull coming in for a landing

Short-billed Gulls frequent the Necanicum River Estuary in Gearhart. This bird was stamping their feet in the shallow water to stir up food items.

A stop at the Seaside Cove produced a large flock of Surfbirds.

Just a few Black Turnstones were mixed in with the Surfbirds.

The most unusual bird of the trip was this Long-tailed Duck at the Cannon Beach Settling Ponds. This is a young female, whose dark coloring blended in surprisingly well with the water’s surface.

We didn’t have much time to look for songbirds, but White-crowned Sparrows are always obliging.

Happy Autumn

Autumn at Last

After a very long dry summer, autumn has finally arrived. While we don’t get the extensive fall colors found in eastern forests, the red Poison Oak highlights the eyes on this Spotted Towhee.

This very ragged Bushtit was found at Wapato Lake NWR, which has finally opened up to birders after a long wait. The refuge will be closed to non-hunters from December-February, but should offer some great birding when it is open.

American Pipits are common migrants this time of year on mudflats and other open habitats.

Male American Kestrel

This American Crow was actively fishing in a tide pool along the Columbia River. I don’t normally think of crows as fish-eaters, but they take advantage of whatever food source is available.

There are still a few American White Pelicans around. They will be gone soon.

Brush Rabbit, blending in with the fall colors

Pacific Tree Frog on a maple leaf. These frogs are very common, but they seldom perch out in the open.

This Black-tailed Deer was just off the path at Cooper Mountain Nature Park.

Happy Autumn

Invertebrates

When the birding is slow, take some time to study the local insects. While identifying some of these creatures makes immature gull ID look easy, some species are big and flashy enough to be accessible. Here are a few creatures from my recent outings, along with my best attempts at identification. Let me know if you find any errors.

Woodland Skipper is one of the most abundant butterfly species in the Pacific NW this time of year.

I believe this is an Orange Sulphur. Sulphurs are very active and seldom perch with their wings open, so getting a good look is extremely difficult.

Cabbage White is another common species.

Carolina Grasshoppers are very plain when at rest, but have a bold black and yellow pattern on their wings when in flight.

Dragonflies come in a great variety of colors and are an increasingly popular target among wildlife watchers. The challenge, of course, is finding one willing to sit still long enough to give you a good look. This is a female Blue Dasher.

I love the turquoise and chestnut colors of this Blue-eyed Darner.

I still prefer birds and herps, but there are a lot of other beautiful creatures out there. As I often say, there is always something to see.

Happy Autumn

Wetlands in the Summer

In mid to late summer, when conditions are very hot and dry in Oregon, most of the wildlife activity is found near wetlands, at least until they dry up as well. Here are a few images from various wetlands in the Portland area this summer.

A Purple Martin strafes an American Kestrel at Tualatin River NWR
Barn Swallow about to nab an insect off the water’s surface
Anna’s Hummingbird feeding on a cedar at Fernhill Wetlands
Two Northern River Otters at Koll Center Wetlands
This otter was almost too close for my camera to focus
Several young Soras put on a nice show at Commonwealth Lake Park
Snacking on a snail
Black Phoebe with a damselfly at Fernhill Wetlands
I always love seeing Brush Rabbits
Summer is Ugly Duck Season, as males molt into eclipse plumage and all the duck replace their flight feathers. This Cinnamon Teal at Beal Street Wetland is best identified by his shape.

Happy Summer

Shorebirds at Tualatin River NWR

Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge has been good for southbound shorebirds this summer. Early in the season, the Long-billed Dowitchers were still sporting their breeding plumage.

At this point, most of the dowitchers have molted into winter plumage.

Normally seen later in the fall, a few Pectoral Sandpipers have made an appearance at the refuge.

Up to three young Wilson’s Phalaropes were at the refuge this summer.

Least Sandpiper

Greater Yellowlegs are one of the more common, and more vocal, of the migrant shorebirds.

Lesser Yellowlegs are harder to find, but have been reliable at the refuge this summer.

Occasionally, the Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs will pose together for a nice comparison.

This Wilson’s Snipe made an unusual appearance out in the open.

Shorebird migration lasts through October, but the water at the refuge typically dries up before then. We’ll see how recent restoration efforts affect water levels this year.

Happy summer

Penstemon Prairie

Grasshopper Sparrows are rare everywhere in Oregon, so Portland area birders got quite excited when several of these birds were found at a small prairie restoration site just south of Fernhill Wetlands. Penstemon Prairie is a not an established park, but it is open to the public, and the agency responsible for the site mowed a path around the perimeter to make walking and birding this site easy.

The morning of my visit, it didn’t take long to find a couple Grasshopper Sparrows. They always positioned themselves to be backlit, and I didn’t want to trample the habitat to get a better position, so I wasn’t able to get any decent photos.

A blurry, backlit Grasshopper Sparrow, singing the songs of their people

Lazuli Buntings were more cooperative in the lighting department.

Lazuli Bunting in morning light. Check out the wear on her tail feathers, probably from nesting.

A distant male Lazuli Bunting

Common Yellowthroats are common in this habitat, but they seldom pose out in the open.

Savannah Sparrow, whose song can be quite similar to that of Grasshopper Sparrow

Another Savannah Sparrow. This early morning light is known as Golden Hour. A lot of photographers seek out this lighting, as it is softer than what you find later in the day, but I don’t like the yellow cast it puts on everything.

Happy Summer

East Side Birds

I don’t get east of the Cascade Crest nearly as often as I would like. It is nice to get a change in habitats and birds, especially in mid-summer, when bird activity on the west side slows down.

This Burrowing Owl was hanging out on a fence post just north of Fort Rock. In this photo they were keeping an eye on a Prairie Falcon that was soaring overhead.

I spent a little time at the water feature at Cabin Lake Campground, where large flocks of Red Crossbills came down to drink. This is an adult female.

This juvenile female has some yellow blotches coming in.

This young male has some red coming in. I didn’t see any mature males that day.

Cassin’s Finch is another species commonly found at the water feature at Cabin Lake.

Cassin’s Finch, showing the distinct red cap and the striped back

I recently made the trip to Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. One seldom sees a great variety of birds here, but the alpine tundra above the lodge always has some goodies, like this Horned Lark.

Mountain Bluebird against a blue sky

The Clark’s Nutcrackers near Timberline are surprisingly shy. This one posed briefly for a portrait.

Happy Summer